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Revival! The forgotten works of Jan Ladislav Dussek

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Every week, CBC Radio 2’s In Concert digs up an unjustly forgotten composer from the sands of time and devotes the final segment of the show to that composer’s music. This week, it’s the Czech piano master Jan Ladislav Dussek.

Who was Jan Ladislav Dussek?

Before there was Liszt, there was Dussek. Born in 1760, this guy was the prototypical touring virtuoso. He spent most of his life traipsing Barry Lyndon-like across Europe, dazzling audiences with hitherto unknown piano skills and crossing paths with seemingly every historically notable figure along the way.

He accompanied Napoleon's violin playing on the piano. He ingratiated himself so thoroughly to Marie Antoinette that she begged him not to leave France. He was thrown out of Russia under suspicion of trying to assassinate Catherine the Great. He had affairs with royalty. He started a publishing business in London, which failed, and he fled the country leaving his erstwhile business partner (and father-in-law) to go to debtors' prison.

Dussek was a man of tremendous excesses. He died drunk, and so obese that he could no longer reach the keys of his piano from the bench. But, in his prime, he cut a handsome figure. And, he put that figure on display by turning the piano sideways, so that the audience could see his profile instead of his back, as was usual for the time. Nowadays, that's how all pianists do it.

Why have I never heard of him?

That's a very good question. Given his extraordinary story and massive celebrity in his own lifetime, you might expect that Dussek would have remained a commonly known name. But it seems like nobody took the trouble to maintain Dussek's fabulous reputation after his death — perhaps taking for granted that a reputation like Dussek's would look after itself.

Nonetheless, editions of his music dried up, and the notables of the 19th-century music world stopped talking about him. Before long, Dussek had gone from being an enormous sensation to an obscure historical footnote.

Why should I check him out?

Dussek's piano music (and it is mostly piano music) sits at an unusual tipping point between Mozart's classicism and the sort of romantic virtuoso music that would make Franz Liszt famous, decades later. It's a novel experience to hear such forward-looking music by a person so obviously steeped in 18th-century musical trends.

1. Piano Concerto in G minor, op. 49

We’re not entirely sure exactly how many piano concertos Dussek wrote. After his works fell into a state of neglect when he died, some of this music went missing and was never found. But, we still have 18 complete concertos that stand up nicely with contemporaneous works by Mozart and Beethoven.

This one from 1801 finds Dussek moving into more adventurous territory than his early works, but the spectre of Mozart still looms large.

2. Piano Sonata in A-flat major, op. 64

Dussek wrote this sonata just after he returned to Paris, following his disastrous business failure in London. That’s how it got its most common nickname, The Return to Paris.

But the sonata acquired another nickname as part of a competition with the Austrian composer Joseph Wölfl to write the most taxing sonata ever. Wölfl produced a sonata nicknamed Non Plus Ultra, which means, roughly, “no further beyond.” So, when Dussek wrote this one, he called it Plus Ultra. Wölfl set himself up for that one.

3. Piano Quartet in E-flat major, op. 56

Even Dussek’s chamber music revolves primarily around the piano. Aside from a few string quartets and other assorted obscurities, Dussek wrote chamber music with his instrument positioned front and centre. Here’s a piano quartet from 1804, shortly before his return to France.

4. Harp Concerto in E-flat major, op. 15

There was only one instrument that could compete with the piano for Dussek’s affections: the harp. His mother was a harpist, and he loved the instrument from day one. Not a lot of composers focused nearly as much of their attention on the harp as Dussek. That’s probably the reason why he’s better known today amongst harpists than any other group of musicians.

5. Duo in F for Harp and Piano, op. 11

It’s probably natural that Dussek’s two most beloved instruments should make an appearance together in his music. In fact, Dussek wrote hours of music for this combination. This duo is an earlyish work in Dussek’s oeuvre, from three years after Dussek’s first music was published.